“. . . as Christians we believe that personality really does exist and is important. We can lay down some general principles, but there can be no automatic application. If we are truly personal, as created by God, then each individual will differ from everyone else. If we would work with these people, we cannot apply the things we have dealt with in this book mechanically. We must look to the Lord in prayer, and to the work of the Holy Spirit, for the effective use of these things.” (The God Who is There by Francis Schaeffer, page 130, 1968)
“History, then, proceeds by abduction (hypothesis and verification); it includes the study of human aims and motivations, mapped by worldview-analysis or the like; it results in a narrative displaying causes and consequences; this involves the exercise of the disciplined but sympathetic imagination, just as in the formation of the hypotheses in the hard sciences; and this produces real knowledge. . . And, whether or not the historian calls it ‘love,’ that exercise of sympathetic imagination is precisely the point at which the quest for meaning comes in, enabling us within the task of history to give an account of the past, which highlights real events in the knowable past and does so in a such a way as to discern the meaning or pattern of the events within the worldviews of the people concerned. And perhaps also . . . within the worldviews of people in our own day.” (History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology by N.T. Wright, including his italics, pages 102 and 103, 2019)
Introduction to Happy Birthday, RE Lee: Born January 19, 1809
Quickly jotting down your Top Ten figures in American history is an extremely interesting exercise. It will tell you a lot about yourself. (In this post, I do not place myself on Freud’s couch before you. You would have no interest, and I do not have the time—or energy!)
Everyone’s Top Ten list will be radically different. It would be a near miracle if your list overlapped another’s by more than 50%. Like comparing political opinions among friends or with candidates, it’s nearly impossible for voters to find substantial agreement with any single fellow citizen or political candidate. Our individual worldviews differ greatly and take us down into much detail. Individuals are significantly different in current time and across history, and we should not lump each other into identity categories. No men, women, whites, blacks, etc., etc., etc. think and act totally alike. We all have consciousness, conscience, free will, and we exercise it all on an ongoing basis that does change us over time.
Having said all that, let’s see: I’m white, married, a Boomer, in the upper middle class, Christian, male, a Virginian who grew up mostly in the South but not totally by any stretch, and worked all over the U.S. in finance. My Top Ten significant Americans are easy: George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and Ronald Reagan.
With that done, an immediate problem arises: For me, Robert Lee goes in there somewhere—probably in the Top 5, but I’m not sure who to bump out of the Top Ten to move him in. I realize I must define my criteria of “significance,” and that will need to wait for later.
Obviously and regrettably, let’s face it: I do not have any women on my list. Not that women are not more than equal in every way, especially today and certainly to me, but that touches on the issue, again, of criteria. It seems America’s executive leadership in its founding and its formation through war are important to me in shaping, sustaining, and strengthening America—now a global power for the good. For better or worse, I do believe that the construction of Western Civilization was largely a man’s job prior to the 20th century. During the last 100 years, equal rights in the West were extended to both sexes and all races, with wealth vastly increasing and technology radically altering our lives. Today, in key ways, we live in a much better world. I hope we can maintain its best elements and fix our true problems.
But, back to my Top Ten; in sum, I do not believe “diversity for diversity sake” meets my definition of “significant,” though I firmly believe women had at least an equal role in shaping America. Being the first at something does not make one automatically most significant. (Of course, I’m open to discussion and suggestions concerning my Top Ten, and I believe it will not take many years for a woman to make my list. It would be nice to have enough years left in me.)
To break down my list factually somewhat: it includes seven U.S. presidents, five slave owners, and one former slave. Four (with Lee) are from the Civil War period, a history I know extremely well. In my opinion, that war shaped America far more than any other in a whole host of ways—and not just in ending slavery, following Great Britain. My continuous study reveals the hand of God in the Civil War (the War) literally everywhere in every moment.
It is obvious: the South was going to lose, though nothing with God and human beings is inevitable. Nothing. A paradox, but welcome to my worldview.
Of course, while Union and Confederate forces fought to the death across the nation, Richmond was the center of the war. Early on, most Americans recognized that if Richmond fell, the war would soon be over. As it turned out, they were correct.
Richmond’s monuments built after the Civil War were a testament to the war’s gargantuan scope and importance, casualties the likes of which America has not otherwise experienced (and we hope never will again). It was also a testament for the need for North and South to unite again to sustain and rebuild a broken nation. Those monuments were beautiful works of art; a little over the top, perhaps, but understandable given the times and circumstances. It’s not difficult in the slightest to understand how many African-Americans today experience significant emotional pain or dislike in the sight of such monuments or any Confederate uniform, especially those who do not have a thorough knowledge of the times and the War.
Today, all our hearts cry out when we think of the misery, suffering, and death slavery as an institution has produced over the course of history everywhere in virtually every age. It is appalling. How could human beings do that to each other? But we still do, and it will continue unless we stop it.
Nonetheless, my list of five slave owners holds. I believe I could provide a reasonable argument for everyone on my list, after defining my criteria of significance and explaining the “worldviews” and circumstances of everyone on my list.
At the Richmond City mayor’s direction in 2017 and 2018, a hand-picked Commission tried to decide which of Richmond’s monuments to keep, and many feel we erred in allowing the mob chaos of the Summer of 2020 to influence their total destruction. Granted, some of it was through a legitimate legal process, but the result that totally eliminated all Confederate monuments represented a limited segment of the state’s population. I have relatives that were prominent people on both sides of the War, and I do not believe one group was good and the other evil, anymore than I would say that about differing lives and issues today. That is nonsense given any sex or race and given most faiths or nationalities.
I have a large Civil War library and have read many books about the war from every angle, including biographies on most major historical figures. For example, prior to 2020, I had read all of the significant biographies on Lee himself and, since 2020, have read the four most recent Lee biographies that I’m aware of shown in the picture below (in addition to biographies on Grant and Union General Sherman), just to see if I was wrong or missing something.
The stack includes (in order of publication): Robert E. Lee: Icon of a Nation by Brian Holden Reid (2005), The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda (2014), The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War Decision That Changed American History by Jonathan Horn (2015), and Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen C. Guelzo (2022). You can see political correctness advancing somewhat through these biographies, but they are by and large fair.
By the way, if you want a sympathetic and entertaining rendering of the entire War, watch Ken Burns’s The Civil War miniseries that aired on television on consecutive nights between September 23 and 27, 1990 and which made Ken Burns famous. It’s a classic that riveted America—we discussed nothing but that at home and at the water cooler for a solid week.
So, was I wrong or missing something after updating my knowledge? In my opinion, nope, I sure wasn’t. Views formed since first beginning study of the War 58 years ago were only strengthened.
Other than the importance of the Civil War to American history and the Richmond monuments, the other significant, related issue I need to mention before proceeding to Lee’s birthday tribute is the mental state of young males in America today. Social scientists have well-documented in recent years that boys and men are not doing particularly well. This weakens America in many ways.
I believe the reason for this, in part, is that culture has turned against traditional masculinity, resulting in a dearth of current and historical positive role models that are acceptable to study and celebrate. They were plentiful when I was coming of age. Personally, I hope some of those truly world class and admirable historical figures once on Richmond’s Monument Avenue return one day to our public spaces. It is our loss, and the rest of the world will be studying them forever.
We must rebalance the history of a city that’s done as much as any other to shape America. We are forgetting many of our nation’s greatest historical figures because we are doing history in a false way using poor, if not deliberately malicious judgement. Radical skepticism and an Orwellian desire to control the public narrative (cancel culture) is killing us.
The Epistemology of Love
In his recent book, History and Eschatology, N.T. Wright describes the right way to approach history. (We recently mentioned Wright and featured one of his videos in a post.) He applies critical realism via an epistemology of love (perhaps defined by the words “sympathetic imagination”) exactly as outlined in his quote highlighted at the very top here.
His theory reveals starkly why the postmodernist (anti-truth), Marxist (historicism), and identity politics (radical skepticism) approaches completely fail and why they have utterly extinguished themselves. He also explains how his historical approach avoids past ills of rationalism’s hyper-objectivity and romanticism’s hyper-subjectivity. He grounds idealism back in reality. Moreover (and this is the fun part for everyone here at Praxis Circle), Wright’s epistemology of love focuses on the worldviews of all relevant historical actors, as well as the historians themselves.
Portraits of four of my Top Ten+ most significant American historical characters from the Civil War appear immediately above, all deliberately in civilian clothes. I did this to highlight that neither one was a “suit,” uniform, or “identity.” All were persons. Love, family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances were most important to each, along with the culture and location of their personal experiences.
Again, each was a person or individual worthy of much admiration then as now, and each received that admiration in large quantities from a Christian population across political and social lines during life or soon thereafter. Each personality was extraordinarily different, other than being in various ways brilliant and amazingly brave. They were able, loyal, and principled men, who made many tough decisions and almost always followed through with successes usually outnumbering failures.
Each was quite good at what he did during a period of American history when it really, really mattered—a lawyer and politician, an army commander and politician, an army commander and educator, and a former slave and liberator. In many respects they set the standard for those who followed them. All were great humanitarians of their own times and placed America first on numerous, critical occasions. Each had an amazing sense of timing and demonstrated how to seize the day, balancing conflicting and often difficult considerations that presented themselves, then incurring serious consequences. They were demonstrably selfless and, in most respects, oriented to the common good. Each loved his fellow man and received love back in return.
Yet, each were quite human and flawed individuals, and each paid a significant price for his leadership.
It is flatly absurd to assign credit, status, guilt, innocence, blame, or responsibility to anyone living today for anything that happened in the 1800s. No one living today had any role in time then, and no one today can possibly think like those living then, given the colossal differences in society, culture, circumstances, and life in general, without intensive study of the individuals and their times and circumstances. It should not have to be said: racial prejudice and discrimination today is nothing compared to the world I was born into, and it’s practically not existent relative to the 1860s.
In addition, no one should try to derive any benefit today from grievances claimed from 50 to over 150 years ago. This is absurd. That we are even considering such idiocy is a sign of times not grounded in reality and truth.
The fact of the matter is that, before, during, and after the War, plenty of whites loved plenty of blacks and plenty of masters loved plenty of slaves and vice versa (whites to blacks and slave to free), regardless of social status. This is what human beings have always done.
That doesn’t mean most slaves didn’t hate slavery or were severely harmed by it, and that doesn’t exempt slavery from being seen as evil then as now. The society that existed before the War was just what each of the four great men pictured above were born into and were forced to deal with—the same way we are dealing with our own serious, though extremely different issues today.
The epistemology of love is not necessarily a distinctly Christian virtue, but Tom Wright makes a terrific argument that it’s absolutely necessary to even scratch the surface of historical truth, which is bedrock to Christianity and the Western foundations of Classical Judeo-Christian society, culture, and life.
The Joe Montana of the Civil War
We do not patronize our Praxis Circle readers by referring to the Civil War, the War between the States, or the “War of Northern Aggression” as the American Civil War because, as Americans, there is no other that matters so much anywhere in history. It is not even close. No American is confused. The Civil War made even the most exciting Super Bowl look like a pre-season flag football warm up.
Having said that, while we are now in the height of our NFL playoff season, I want to use a sports analogy to highlight the importance of RE Lee to the military history of the Civil War and the nation’s fate that resulted.
This post’s featured picture above is easily recognizable to any NFL football fan as “The Catch,” when Joe Montana threw the ball at the last second to Dwight Clark to win the 1982 NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys. It was an excellent catch, no doubt about it, but it was also an excellent throw right when it looked like the Dallas defense had Montana for a loss. It was also perhaps the play that marked the beginning of the San Francisco 49er dynasty.
Montana was one of football’s most clutch quarterbacks. He shows up high on the list of quarterbacks with the most come-from-behind victories. (It’s a very interesting list. Take a look. Richmond’s own Russell Wilson is high up there above Joe!).
I was actually present in Kenan Stadium as a student in Chapel Hill at the Notre Dame versus North Carolina game in 1975, when Comeback Joe made his debut. Late in the fourth quarter when underdog Carolina was up by 14, having dominated the game to that point, Notre Dame sent in an unknown sophomore named Joe Montana.
Final result (see here): Notre Dame 21, Carolina 14. To the national press, the legend of Joe Montana began that day.
It seems legends tend to show themselves consistently through the course of their heroic lives. The ancient Greeks had a term for this human trait, exousia—the power that comes forth simply from exceptional being.
Of course, when we are dealing with sensitive and complicated historical events, we need to rely on well-established, trustworthy historians. Today, when it comes to the Civil War, in my opinion there is none greater than Dr. Gary Gallagher at the University of Virginia. The video offered at top presents Dr. Gallagher’s lecture given last year at the Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in downtown Richmond, entitled The Union War. He explains the Union’s primary motivation for fighting such a bloody war to conclusion over four long years of increasing intensity. Early in the lecture, he distinguishes between the War’s initial causes and the subsequent motivations of the average Union officer and soldier.
While he sees slavery as the most significant of what I call “but for” causes of the War (“but for” the institution of slavery, the war would not have been fought; a lawyer would distinguish this type of cause from an event’s proximate cause), he says that the Union forces did not fight the war to end slavery, but to save the Union. While the argument is extremely difficult for us to understand today, it is convincing and has been well-known for many years. It’s a good and, I believe, true thesis.
In any case, there is no doubt that Lee was one of the most admired officers in the U.S. army prior to the Civil War. According to Dr. Gallagher, the two most important leaders during the War itself were Lincoln and Lee. In addition, Gary has no doubt whatsoever that fate and General Lee’s military acumen and ability lengthened the war three more years than would have been the case had he never received command of Virginia’s army (which he subsequently named the Army of Northern Virginia), and later command of the entire Confederate war effort.
In June of 1862, with General McClellan’s larger and much better supplied Union army only five miles from a largely surrounded Richmond, with the Union’s devastating siege warfare nearby and in preparation, with the Confederate forces under General Joe Johnston having performed a managed retreat all the way from Norfolk to the Richmond City’s gates, and with the Confederate army’s supply largely tied to the City, things did not look good at all for the South. All the money at that time in Vegas would have been placed on General McClellan. Most certainly, according to Dr. Gallagher, the war should have been over soon.
Furthermore, and most important to today, Dr. Gallagher does not believe the Union would have abolished slavery in 1862 had McClellan taken Richmond then.
As fortune would have it, however, General Johnston was seriously wounded as the battle for Richmond began on June 1, 1862, and General Lee was brought off the bench as second string to command the Confederate army. (Enter Joe Montana.) General Lee’s fundamental belief was that the South could not win a purely defensive war, and that he had to seize and hold the offensive. In fact, he knew he needed eventually to take the War northward to force negotiation and peace, which he did later that year and in 1863 (with mixed success, at best).
In any case, within seven days of taking command in the first battle for Richmond, General Lee totally reversed the situation and had General McClellan retreating east back down the James River. His rapid conclusion of McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign started a string of unlikely, fascinating, and no less than amazing victories for the South that gave it a huge surge of optimism and literally a fighting chance well into 1864. These battles were much larger than North America had ever seen, and they previewed World War I’s phenomenal destruction and loss of life.
In many ways Lee was America’s last soldier, when each soldier still mattered, cavalry was still vital to success, and before explosives, mechanization, armory, and air & sea power impersonalized destruction and death. My four heroes above represent the passing of a great age.
In History and Life: No Pains, No Gains
Of course, Dr. Gallagher is a leading scholar of the Civil War generally, but also an expert and noted lecturer in Confederate history itself. He has given other lectures centering on RE Lee, such as the one linked here (Robert E. Lee and the Question of Loyalty) that are additive and extremely interesting to Civil War fans.
In sum, Dr. Gallagher has alway exhibited the kind of sympathetic imagination toward his historical human subjects, trying to place himself in each person’s shoes in the world that actually existed to the best of our available knowledge, without giving any character certainty about the future, other than the imagination we all have toward our own. This was the West’s standard of historical inquiry until postmodernism and cultural Marxism came to infest leading departments in some of our major universities.
Of course, each person in the Civil War had his or her own reasons for taking sides and fighting, and it’s difficult to generalize motives. Those loyal to the Union really did regard the Confederacy’s existence as a rebellion rather than a legal withdrawal, and, given this fact, once attacked, it is easy to see how many, if not most, Southerners regarded the War more as a defense of state or regional sovereignty (defense of home), than solely a defense of slavery.
Undeniably, it was a white person’s world in America in the 1800s, and, bottom line, the War was a “win/lose, knock down, drag out, and kill or be killed fight” for power, political sovereignty, and self-rule. The War really was often literally brother against brother, and it frequently severed close families for generations, with death and destruction vividly remembered up close and personally well into the world I was born into in 1955.
And yet, many blacks in the South in 1861 were already free, some owned slaves, and some fought for the South. Furthermore, many Southerners who joined the Confederacy disliked slavery and hoped it would end peacefully in each state’s due time, as it already had in the British Empire. Many Southerners had begun to initiate freedom for blacks at a growing pace by the late 1700’s. And yes, whites and blacks, slave and free alike, did love each other then as now in all due freedom of the will as necessary to make it so. We should let no one take this away from us as a nation, still inhabited by deeply flawed persons.
To me, the “Lost Cause” as it developed among writers and lectures after the War was simply a natural element of Monday morning quarterbacking that occurs among losers and between winners and losers after every war in a quasi-free society. There is always lots of self-justification, finger pointing, and glory seeking. Yes, there was a component of power manipulation behind Lost Cause arguments in the 1800s after the War and into the World War I era between the North and South and especially between the races.
However, today the Lost Cause is more often than not a phrase used to bully the public square into the “politically correct” stance of the moment. When I hear it used, it says much more to me about the person using the term than anything about history.
I do not agree with any historian totally any more than I agree with any politician totally, but I would say that most of my own challenges to Dr. Gallagher lectures and writing are on the order of mere quibbles.
Obviously, there is no question that Lee supported slavery in an active sense in his actions prior to the War and as a commander of the Confederate military. What I object to is using this or similar facts as all the reason needed to dismiss any historical figure today, whether major or lesser known, from a presence in the public square, or to dismiss him or her as a person from the possibility of review in a free discussion.
Such a result would eliminate five of my Top Ten most significant (and, in my opinion, good) Americans. Under the Ford administration on July 22, 1975, the House of Representatives voted 407-10 to restore General Lee’s U.S. citizenship after his amnesty application had remained hidden in Washington for over 100 years. As racial prejudice declined in America after World War II, after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and as historical scholarship improved, General Lee’s reputation continued to improve, as well.
In any case, I believe General Lee was against slavery in principle as a Christian, but did not see a way in his own mind, as a prudent and practical matter, to end it abruptly. He believed more time would tell in the South. After the War, slavery actually was removed peaceably, or at least without major war, in several significant countries.
It would take a long discussion to present my case on slavery and Lee and to debate it. Lee had significant relatives in his family tree who were against slavery, he said it was evil (as did earlier figures like Patrick Henry), and he certainly could see how Great Britain was leading the world squarely against slavery. (Remember, Britain was the superpower in the West then by a wide margin. And yet, many Brits still disagreed on the slavery subject, given the many issues and considerations it entailed.)
Sad to say, Lee was not alone among Northerners and Southerners alike in his reluctance to end slavery immediately in various concentrated Southern areas. Nonetheless, when I place myself in his shoes, as well as others, over the course of his life with the knowledge of the extreme difficulties the nation would face in Reconstruction and beyond, it is easy for me to understand why it was such a hard issue to get right prior to our terrible civil war.
As the War extended much to General Lee’s great leadership ability and inspiration, the more the War brought the moral argument against slavery (well known for a century) to the surface. As Dr. Gallagher says, during the War, many favored abolishing slavery to cripple the institution as a source of strength to the Confederacy, rather than as a moral necessity for blacks. Many if not most whites did not view free Africa-Americans as equals. Since most whites in the North were fighting to save the Union and not end slavery, it was easy for them during the years after the War to ease up on demands from blacks for equality. The U.S. remained a very big and unconnected country long after railroads and telephones.
As a white today, I wish I could say it had been different, but it wasn’t.
In conclusion, as President Lincoln suggested in his Second Inaugural Address, perhaps America needed to suffer to advance given today’s moral perspective. Generals Grant and Lee were the instruments of their respective “countries'” national will, if there is such a thing, in prosecuting the War. Clearly, Lee was one of history’s great tragic figures in that his determination to do the right thing, the circumstances of his life, and his natural ability as a leader led to deaths of so many he loved. The War expended his energy and heart literally, and it seemed to challenge his soul. After the War, he carried much of that with a heavy sadness during his few final years.
In my opinion, a win for the South would have been a disaster for the nation. From another point of view, we can also say today that the South won through losing with manly honor. Lee knew that the South could only stand to lose by maintaining honor, given the social and military standards of day, and above all else he made that happen. The change in the American historical narrative over the last 10-20 years has not changed my respect for General Lee. His character as a good Christian gentleman is true, and his reputation will remain extremely high in the long run. The current “Woke” American historical narrative is false and temporary.
Military historians will study Lee’s life, character, and generalship and the legendary deeds of the Army of Northern Virginia as long as recorded history lasts. These deeds parallel Leonidas and the Spartans, Alexander and the Macedonians, Hannibal and the Carthaginians, Julius Caesar and the Romans, Napoleon and Le Grande Arme, Lee’s great foe Grant and the Army of the Potomac, and General Patton and the Third Army, et cetera.
With a close study of their lives and circumstances, and without their uniforms on, the four great Americans in the pictures above become easy to understand. We must imagine their worldview. I truly believe their core dispositions on the issue of slavery were not nearly as different as one might believe, based on surface skin or uniform color. None of the three whites pictured above were saints in today’s terms. The freedom and equality that brave, brilliant, and eloquent men and women like Frederick Douglass lived for could only be earned in the passage of much time. After the War, racial views changed slowly as personal experience allowed, with final acceleration during and after World War II.
I could feel it as I grew up in Old Virginia in the 1960s, and it was a glorious thing.
In 1990, Governor Wilder was elected the first black governor of any state (Virginia), and in 2008 (only 16 years ago) President Obama was elected the nation’s first black president. In fact, the Owl of Minerva had flown much earlier for discrimination, prejudice, and segregation. By the 1950’s, legal racial equality had caught the hearts and minds of American elites and others across the population, as evidenced in 1954 when Brown versus Board of Education outlawed racial segregation in public schools in a 9-0 vote. The countless sacrifices preceding Dr. King for decades created tailwinds for his nonviolent approach, and he put the final nail in legal discrimination’s coffin. Today many will add Governor Wilder or President Obama to their list of Top Ten with full justification and joy.
Though the struggle for human dignity, freedom, and equality is never over, praise God that the Union was preserved at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 and that we have equal rights for all Americans today. I wish we had gotten here taking a more merciful and faster path, but I do believe we’ve reached a high level of equality, diversity, and mutual understanding for such a large and diverse country.
Indeed, we’re likely risking diminishing returns and increasing violence if we can’t eliminate Woke cancel culture in our public and educational spaces. We must stay true to the First Amendment.
This post was not intended to explain why RE Lee was such a significant and admirable man for all human beings. That would take an equally long post, and you, reader, have been extremely patient to this point. I thank you.
This post is more about how we need to think more about or rethink how we look at history. Praxis Circle has raised this issue numerous times—historical narrative is central to our individual and group worldviews—and we have raised it before concerning the Civil War. We believe in truth concerning facts and human judgment. Judgement aligns with the concepts of truth, reason, logic, and justice.
“The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we only see the ebb of the advancing wave and are this discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.” Letter from RE Lee to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Marshall (September 1870, approximately one month before General Lee’s death on October 12, 1870)